I have been trying to formulate a post on this topic for a while. I suppose the first and most important thing to do is to define the male gaze as I am using it. Gaze as it is used here comes from a usage popularized by French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan and refers to the anxiety inherent in the awareness of one’s visibility to others. In being viewed, the subject of viewing loses some control over how that viewing is perceived. Gaze requires theory of mind – the ability to understand that others have their own reactions and emotions separate from one’s own.
The male gaze is a term created by British film theorist and feminist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. While the term was first used to apply to film theory specifically, it has since taken on a broader cultural meaning to refer to any medium in which the media is presented from the point of view of a heterosexual male. I would personally add that in broad Western culture, that view is also that of a white, upper middle class heterosexual male. In this way, the viewer is forced to take on (and normalize) the worldview of a narrow segment of society while other views are minimized or left out entirely. Most of the easy examples of the male gaze are overtly sexual, but sexuality is only part of that view. I would add that I do not think most male gaze is instituted in a way specifically meant to alienate or minimize other views, but occurs somewhat organically when the vast majority of our media is controlled from the top by white middle class heterosexual males.
The male gaze describes a culture in which the person doing the gazing is male (white, heterosexual, middle class) and those who differ from this description are the passive objects of the gaze. I would argue that after so many centuries in which the male gaze is dominant in paintings, theater, television, movies, commercials, magazines, and billboards (to name a few examples), the male gaze is generally internalized as the normal view by even those who are not themselves white, male, middle class, or heterosexual. I’ve seen it argued that the male gaze accidentally portrays a lesbian gaze as well, but I think that’s a mistake in which sexual attraction to women is seen as a homogenous form of sexuality.
So, many paragraphs in, I think we have the male gaze decently defined for the purposes I’m writing about. I have only to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze, only its dominance. If more views were equally represented, there wouldn’t be much to complain about in regard to the male gaze, which is one valid way to look at the world. Is there a female gaze? Yes, I think there is. It’s just not widely seen because few women are in control of media and those who are have often, perhaps in order to move up in their chosen field, internalized a male gaze and continued to present it as the normal, indeed ONLY, view.
Independent knitwear design is a field largely dominated by women (with a few outstanding exceptions) and many independent knitwear designers use themselves as models, so I want to explore the role of the male gaze in the photography used to accompany knitting patterns. I will need to gather examples for this exercise, so I will be contacting other knitwear designers in the coming weeks to see if I can use their pictures to talk about this. Stay tuned.